The challenges of fresh, local and sustainable seafood; behind the scenes at Farmin’ Brands

"What we really care about,” said Mairs, “is getting the best possible fish to people."

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Alex McKaughin (left) and Ethan Mairs (right) at Farmin’ Brands seafood facility. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON – Fresh, local and sustainable – those were the buzzwords when the Farmin’ on Front grocery store opened in November in downtown Wilmington.

These simple-sounding ideals are at the forefront of modern cuisine, from the seafood counter at grocery stores to the menus of the best local restaurants. But the reality behind this ethos is neither easy nor uncomplicated, especially when it comes to seafood. Port City Daily went behind the scenes at Farmin’ Brand’s food campus to talk to Alex McKaughan and Ethan Mairs, Farmin’s seafood team, about supplying area restaurants with local fish.

“I usually handle the fish guys,” Mairs said, “being on the phone first thing, or going down there first thing in the morning, finding out what’s fresh, what’s new. Alex handles the restaurant guys, he knows what they need, and when they need it.”

McKaughin added, “We’re in an era now, were chefs are really invested. They have the same philosophy as us when it comes to local and sustainable, so that’s good. But they also love the challenge, always finding something cool and new.”

In the past, McKaughin explained, the desire for consistent, year-round menus led to overfishing.

“People wanted the same thing on the plate, all the time. So that obviously led to problem,” he said. “Now, places like Manna, RX or Pinpoint, people trust the restaurant. They trust the chef. And chefs are OK with the fact that, some days, Ethan can get a beautiful local Snowy Grouper, and some days he can’t. It’s a lot of work for everyone involved, but they can roll with it.”

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Mairs checks the eyes. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
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Mairs said, “this is the first thing we look for. Clear eyes, red gills, firm flesh.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“The chefs will call us,” Mairs said. “They’re not looking necessarily for the most popular fish, like back in the day when it was all tuna and Chilean Sea Bass. Now they’ll call and ask, ‘What’s new? What haven’t people seen before? What has the clearest eyes? The reddest gills?’”

While the Wilmington area has a lot of talented and invested chefs, Mairs said – when it comes to seafood – Keith Rhodes of Catch deserves a lot of credit.

“That guy’s the embodiment of the modern local sustainable seafood thing,” Mairs said. “He knows his fish, knows local fishing guys. He’ll know on Tuesday what I’m getting on Wednesday. He’s so plugged in he has a day on me. So I have to work really hard to sell him stuff, because it’s really got to be the best.”

Local and sustainable comes at price, though, and not every restaurant or customer is prepared to pay it.

“I wish I could say everyone’s on board. And I’m not going to blow up anybody’s name,” said McKaughin. “But some restaurants just need a volume that’s not possible from local fishermen.”

“Some chefs call and want five pounds of trigger fish,” Mairs added. “But some guys call, and they’re so stressed out, they just say, ‘man I need like 50 pounds of grouper.’ And, when you look at the menu, you can see it.”

McKaughan said, “A fish dish at a more volume-driven, tourist kind of place, it might be fifteen bucks. And you go downtown, and see something that’s local, and maybe a little sexier, but it’s going to be $30, $35. So it’s not for everyone.”

For these restaurants, McKaughan and Mairs order from fish wholesalers in Boston and Miami.

“It’s still good fish, and these places are certified sustainable,” Mairs said. “But, no, it’s not local. It’s easy to criticize. But you have to remember, these are businesses. Take last year, we had a hurricane sitting off the coast for two weeks. No one was going out fishing. These businesses, they’re still open. If they’re seafood places, and they don’t have fish to sell … let’s say they’re in trouble.”

McKaughan and Mairs said that while the Farmin’ on Front seafood counter is stocked with local fish, and the company’s passion is getting local fish to local restaurants, filling volume orders for larger restaurants is important.

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Local snowy grouper.
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Grouper sourced from Miami.

Mairs pointed to a Red grouper, sourced from a Miami wholesaler, and a locally caught snowy grouper.

“You could say this guy makes the local guy possible,” Mairs said.

McKaughan added that the distinction between smaller, chef-driven places and larger restaurants is not absolute.

“It’s not about high-end places versus tourist traps. A lot of these bigger places, once we’re in there and they know us, they’re still buying you know, 50 pounds of salmon or tuna, but the chefs are also saying, ‘hey, what do you have that’s local, I want to do a special this weekend.’ So there’s some education happening.”

Mairs added, “it’s not all or nothing. Also, it’s not necessarily local fresh-caught or nothing. We work with a local fish farm for some of our striped bass. They take amazing care of the fish, and they’re local, out of Washington, North Carolina.

“What we really care about,” said Mairs, “is getting the best possible fish to people. It just so happens that, a lot of the time, that lines up with seasonality, what’s wild caught and what’s local.”

Video: Ethan Mairs breaks down grouper and red snapper. (Note: The “blooming period” mentioned by Mairs refers to the gradual return of color to the flesh of fish after it has been filleted.)